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The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine

Chapter I

page 1

Chapter I.

Let oil nor steam, nor wings of dream deprive us of our own
The wide world for a kingdom, the saddle for a throne.

How the Brigade Returned to their Horses after the Campaign in Gallipoli.

On December 26th, 1915, 62 officers and 1329 other ranks arrived at Alexandria from Gallipoli, under the command of Brigadier-General E. W. C. Chaytor, C.B., and travelled by rail to Cairo, and returned to their old camp at Zeitoun, where the horses had been kept in the best of condition by a devoted band of transport drivers and reinforcements, assisted by native labour.

We New Zealanders are all horse-lovers by our British birthright, and as Colonials we have learned to value the horse as a means of existence, and not merely as a means of recreation. Our Main Body men were horse-lovers by nature, for had they not volunteered and in very many cases brought their own horses? And they were now horse-lovers by conviction, the conviction born of active experience. They had learned that to no man is a horse so essential as to the mounted soldier. His horse is more than a friend, he is a part of the soldier's very life.

We had all read of the Arab's love for his horse, and we learned in these early days in the desert around Cairo the reason of that love. Without a horse in the desert a man is impotent. He perishes miserably. He who has once ridden into action with the bullets whistling past his ears and the shells bursting round him, will never forget his horse; how the good steed became verily a part of his body, a glorified body that carried him whithersoever he willed; escaping this danger by a miracle; leaping over that; and, when all seemed page 2lost, by his very energy and the thunder of his hoofs thrilling his rider to renewed effort.

Organisation as a Mounted Brigade began at once. Main Body men found their own particular horses again, and many happy meetings there were between man and horse.

It was not now a case of training horses. The horses were there in the pink of condition, and the task was to find the men. Horsemanship being an essential accomplishment for success in mounted work, daily riding tests were made, and much care, judgment and patience were exercised in the selection of suitable men from the reinforcements to fill vacancies to complete establishment. Indifferent horsemen were sent to their respective "Detail Squadrons" for further instruction. These "Detail Squadrons" were formed at Zeitoun (one for each regiment) to train reinforcements, and were drawn upon when required by the unit in the field. Selected officers and N.C.Os. were sent to the School of Instruction at Zeitoun, where they and those who from time to time throughout the remainder of the War replaced them, most worthily upheld the honour of New Zealand. Our machine gunners in particular gained much credit, carrying off the highest marks obtained by any unit throughout the whole course of the schools. These schools were instituted early in 1915, and were carried on by selected officers from the British Army and brought to the highest state of efficiency; and well and truly did they take that place in the East which in the West was taken by the training camps at Sling and the cadet battalions at Oxford and Cambridge.

Day by day the work of reconstruction went rapidly on. New arms and equipment were obtained from that generous mother of the Army, the Ordnance Stores. Old arms and equipment were cleaned and repaired, and the machine guns overhauled by our old friends at the Citadel. Here, at Cairo's most ancient fortress, are situated the Egyptian Army's ordnance workshops, and in Mishalany Bey and his assistants the Brigade ever found true friends, for whom no job was too difficult, no repairs too urgent, and no want too small to be instantly and efficiently supplied. And it was very largely owing to the Citadel that the strenuous efforts of every officer and man in each troop bore such good fruit; that the depleted page 3regiments, which had reached Cairo on December 28th, 1915, were enabled in a short twelve days to parade and to form (together with the Signal Troop, Field Troop, Field Ambulance and Ammunition Column) that perfect instrument of war, a Mounted Rifles Brigade—fully armed, magnificently horsed, properly equipped and at full strength.

Brigade Headquarters, Zeitoun.

Brigade Headquarters, Zeitoun.

The N.Z.M.R. Brigade was composed of three Mounted Rifles Regiments. The Auckland Regiment, the Wellington Regiment, and the Canterbury Regiment. The Otago Mounted Rifles were not with the Brigade during the Sinai and Palestine campaigns. Each regiment was composed of three squadrons; and each of these squadrons was recruited from a regiment of Mounted Rifles in New Zealand; and the squadron bore the name of that regiment in New Zealand. So the Auckland Regiment consisted of the 3rd, 4th and 11th Squadrons coming from their parent regiments, 3rd (Auckland) Mounted Rifles, 4th (Waikato) Mounted Rifles, 11th (North Auckland) Mounted Rifles. The Wellington Regiment was composed of the 2nd, 6th and 9th Squadrons coming from Queen Alexandra's 2nd (Wellington West Coast) Mounted page 4Rifles, 6th (Manawatu) Mounted Rifles, and the 9th (Wellington East Coast) Mounted Rifles. And the Canterbury Regiment consisted of the 1st, the 8th and the 10th Squadrons, from their parent regiments the 1st Mounted Rifles (Canterbury Yeomanry Cavalry), the 8th (South Canterbury) Mounted Rifles, and the 10th (Nelson) Mounted Rifles. From this it is seen that each of the three military districts, Auckland, Wellington and Canterbury, found one regiment.

In addition to the three regiments the complete Brigade consisted of the Machine Gun Squadron, the Signal Troop, the Field Troop, the Mobile Veterinary Section, and the Mounted Field Ambulance. A battery of R.H.A. also always fought with the Brigade.

The Machine Gun Squadron was formed early in the Sinai campaign from the machine gun sections of each regiment and was therefore recruited from all three regiments. Later as a complete unit the Machine Gun Squadron was reinforced from suitable men from any district in New Zealand.

The Signal Troop were specialists principally from the Post and Telegraph Department and the Railways.

The Field Troop was a unit formed in Sinai. They were the handy men of the Brigade; and among them were civil engineers, mechanical engineers, engine drivers, carpenters, plumbers, draughtsmen, surveyors and mechanics of all kinds. And the Troop was recruited from selected men chosen on account of their special qualification.

The Mobile Veterinary Section was officered chiefly by veterinary officers belonging to the Agricultural Department and recruited from men selected in New Zealand. And, lastly, the Mounted Field Ambulance was kept up to strength by men selected in New Zealand and sent with the other reinforcements.

As to the R.H.A. Battery, for nearly the whole of the campaign the Somerset Territorial Battery, R.H.A., was attached to the New Zealand Brigade, and the men came almost to consider themselves New Zealanders, but the battery was, of course, recruited from England.

Attached to the Brigade, though not actually working with it, were the Rarotongans formed into a company about 250 strong.

In addition to the Brigade and its attached units, two Camel Companies were formed from Mounted Rifles reinforce-page 5ments. These companies formed a part of the I.C.C. Brigade and fought in the Sinai and Palestine campaigns. On June 10th, 1918, they were disbanded and formed into the 2nd M.G. Squadron, and as such were attached to the 5th Australian L.H.Brigade.

Right to left: Capt. Bond, General Chaytor, Major powles.

Right to left: Capt. Bond, General Chaytor, Major powles.

Put shortly the composition of the Brigade was as follows:
OfficersOther RanksHorses
3 Regiments each of 24 Officers, 499
Other Ranks, 616 horses7214971848
1st Machine Gun Squadron8222321
Signal Troop13636
Field Troop25067
No. 2 Mobile Veterinary Section12928
Mounted Field Ambulance6133127
Auckland M.R. Band136
No. 4 Coy. A.S.C.5119156
R.H.A. Battery 5149246
In addition there were the following:—
1.2 Camel Companies each of 6 Officers 117 Other Ranks
 These were formed in 1918 into the No. 2 M.G. Squadron of 8 Officers 221 Other Ranks.page 6
2.N.Z. Rarotongan Coy.6240
3.Administrative Headquarters in Cairo330
4.Training Depot, Ismailia1979

To keep the Brigade up to strength throughout the war a total of 17,723 all ranks left New Zealand.

The days went by busily spent in drill and "mobilisation parades"—the whole Brigade parading in full mounted order with first line of transport. These parades proved invaluable; and a steady improvement in smartness, in equipment, and in general soldierly bearing was very noticeable.

How the Brigade Marched through the Land of Goshen.

At 9 o'clock on January 23rd, 1916, the complete Brigade moved off from Zeitoun Camp, passing through ancient Heliopolis, which dates from 2433 B.C., and marched by easy stages to the Suez Canal.

Down through the shady lanes of Matarieh we rode, overhead arches of the gorgeous Bougainvillaea, underneath the horses' feet carpets of purple blossoms, past that old garden where is "Mary's Well," and that traditional tree under which Mary and Joseph and the Child took refuge after the "Flight into Egypt," and so to Heliopolis, the On of the Old Testament, now a wide enclosure of earthen mounds partly planted with gardens. And there standing solitary is that wonderful obelisk as tall and straight and as finely cut, even as it stood when first erected nearly 4000 years ago, in front of the Temple of the Sun wherein Moses was educated. It is the oldest known in Egypt, and therefore in the world, the father of all that have arisen since. It saw the coming of Joseph, the education and growth of Moses; it is mentioned by Herodotus; and of all the obelisks that were or still are, it alone has kept its position, and it stands to-day as erected by its makers; and was now looking down upon men from the youngest nation in the world.

Passing on, our way lay along one of those causeways high above the floods. We looked across the green fields to the minarets of Cairo and the mighty Pyramids shimmering there in the sun; even as no doubt Moses beheld them when he, too, turned his face to the East and took his leave of Egypt. So we now, not knowing what lay for us in the future, looked across Cairo to the Pyramids and wondered page 7whether our wanderings would bring us within sight of these mighty monuments ever again.

The weather was delightfully cool, and though rain fell heavily every day and there were no tents, all were in the highest spirits. The strain of the life on Anzac had gone and we were moving off to whatsoever God had in store for us; not this time on our feet, but in our rightful manner upon our beloved horses. And when the nights were wet and cold and the ration train arrived late and there was no firewood, yet the E.S.R. in its wisdom had seen fit at this time to duplicate the railway line from Cairo to Ismailia, and for the purpose had stacked quantities of creosoted sleepers—and creosoted wood does make a bright and cheerful fire! And so we journeyed through the land of Goshen, passing the night of January 27th at Abu Sueir, the ancient Pithom—the treasure city which the Israelites of old made for Pharaoh. On the fourth day we had passed through the lines of Tel el Kebir, now filled with sand but distinctly traceable; and on the sixth day, the day after passing Abu Sueir, arrived at Moascar. The next morning we rode through Ismailia and marched past General Sir Archibald Murray, then Commander-in-Chief in Egypt. He was accompanied by General Sir A. Godley—whose headquarters were in Ismailia—and General Sir A. H. Russell, the Brigade's old Commander. And on the evening of the seventh day we arrived at Serapeum and settled down into a comfortable camp in the sand about one mile from the banks of the Canal.

Now began training in earnest—rifle shooting, machine gun shooting, tactical exercises, boxing matches, swimming in the Canal, filled up the days—and happy days they were.

The weather was still cool and the nights bracingly cold. All the old hands were losing the "Gallipoli strain," and to the new hands the life was wonderfully interesting. Then came sorrow, with the breaking of many friendships; for there was being organised at Moascar the New Zealand Infantry Division, for the completion of which the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade was peremptorily ordered to find some 50 officers and 2000 men. They went reluctantly to the artillery and to the infantry, and together with the Maoris, formed the Pioneer Battalion.

page 8

This forceful and rigorous policy depleted the Brigade of some of its best officers and "Main Body" N.C.Os. and men. Many of these were in the details camps just out of hospital and recovering from wounds and sickness incurred on the Peninsula, and they were summarily transferred to batteries, transport, or infantry battalions. N.C.Os. of long experience as mounted riflemen were reduced to the ranks where privates or gunners only were required, and were not given a chance to volunteer; nor was the Brigadier given a chance to call for volunteers, for men were seized in the training camps.

In no unit of the Army is there greater esprit-de-corps than in a mounted regiment. It goes without saying that a man who willingly and voluntarily chooses a mounted unit, with all its added work of care for his horse in addition to the care of himself, is of necessity a man of steadfast purpose and of wide sympathies. In addition to the Brotherhood of the Regiment he belongs to the Brotherhood of the Horse, and from this twofold love springs a tribal feeling as strong as that which animated the Highland clans of old. And this Brigade had just been through a campaign the like of which for the welding of love and friendship between man and man has scarcely ever been equalled, and which was fought under a leader whose watchword to his men ever was—even as that of King Arthur to his knights of old: "Do everything that comes to you with all your might, and for reward just this—that to this Table Round ye all belong."

Amongst the officers so transferred was Major G. A. King, D.S.O., who had been the Brigade's Staff Captain since the Brigade was formed in New Zealand in 1914. His departure caused the greatest regret throughout the whole Brigade, for no other officer had so endeared himself to all ranks. His enthusiasm, his unbounded energy, his great knowledge of horses, arms, equipment, and all impedimenta of a mounted soldier's life, and his ever unfailing and smiling good humour proved a tower of strength to the whole Brigade and smoothed away many a difficulty. No one but he who had the good fortune to work intimately with George Augustus King can ever know how much the great reputation made by the Brigade throughout the War was due to him.

page 9

On February 19th the well-known Commanding Officer of the Canterbury Regiment, Lieut.-Colonel John Findlay, affectionately called by his men "Old John," rejoined. He had been seriously wounded on Gallipoli in the breaking of the Turkish lines on the night of August 6th, and had been in hospital in England for some time. His arrival in his regimental lines was heralded by much cheering. This officer continued to command the Canterbury Regiment throughout the remainder of the War, and justly earned the distinction, conceded by both Australians and New Zealanders, of being the finest Regimental Commander in the Anzac Mounted Division. When it is remembered that this Division was the original cavalry formation in the Sinai Campaign, and the parent of all cavalry formations that eventually took part in the Palestine campaign, among whom it gained for itself the name of being the finest cavalry Division in the Army, it will be seen that the reputation won by Colonel Findlay was of the highest order.

Major G. A. King with Major Powles at Zeitoun.

Major G. A. King with Major Powles at Zeitoun.

page 10

On February 23rd the Otago Mounted Rifles finally left the Brigade. Though never officially a part of the Mounted Brigade, they had fought throughout the Gallipoli campaign under their beloved leader, Colonel Bauchop, as a Brigade unit, and had returned with the Brigade, and with it had gone through the period of re-horsing and reconstruction.

Brigade Transport crossing the Pontoon Bridge at Serapeum. March 6th, 1916.

Brigade Transport crossing the Pontoon Bridge at Serapeum. March 6th, 1916.

At Serapeum began the study of archaeology and ancient history, a study that proved of inestimable value to everyone in the Brigade. In a country of dust, sand flies and intolerable peoples—and from whom there was no escape, no week-end or other leave—this interest in the old history of the land helped to pass many a weary hour and to brighten many a dreary day.

And it began in this way—on the edge of our camp lay a large mound, much like the sand hills which lay all around but of a more solid formation; and on this mound lay broken slabs of red Assouan granite. A digging party found more granite. And so, gradually a band of enthusiastic excavators began systematic digging; and there came into being the "Serapeum Sand-Shifters' Association," formed by willing volunteers of brawn and muscle from all units in the Brigade. The result after due submission of many pieces of inscribed granite page 11to the Cairo Museum authorities, was interesting and startling. It appears that there was a Pharaoh called Necho who began to cut a canal from the Pelusiac arm of the Nile to the Red Sea, to bring his Mediterranean shipping through to the Indian Ocean. After one hundred thousand of his people had died on the work he was compelled to desist. Soon afterwards Darius the Persian conquered Egypt and he completed the canal and erected at its entrance to the Red Sea a huge monument in red Assouan granite. This was the monument which we had found.

This first excavation was the forerunner of much interesting work done by the Brigade during its career.

Brigade Headquarters Office ready for the road.

Brigade Headquarters Office ready for the road.

Shorn of some of its best officers and men and without the Otago Regiment, the Brigade welcomed with joy a move to rail-head Ferry Post and there on March 6th took over a portion of the front line of the Canal Defences.

Here many days were passed in long patrols into the Desert; in learning how and how not to make defences in the sand; and last and by no means least, in learning how and page 12how not to load the "Ship of the Desert." For the desert on the east of the Canal is so soft that all wheels were left at Serapeum, and the Brigade made its first move on "Camel Transport"—a never-to-be-forgotten day when everything everybody owned had either to be got somehow on to a camel or left behind for ever. And one experienced a mild wonder (a wonder that returned many times in the days to come) how with sand all round and no shops within many miles, one's "Things" multiplied exceedingly immediately a camp was pitched.

Formation of the Anzac Mounted Division

On March 21st the front line was inspected by H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, whose quiet unassuming manner, keen interest in everything he saw, and utter absence of "side" quite captured the hearts of our men.

On March 15th the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division was formed, consisting of the following Brigades:—
  • 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade.
  • 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade.
  • 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade.
  • New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade.
  • 4 Territorial R.H.A. Batteries—2 Scottish and 2 English.—(The Ayrs and Inverness and the Somersets and Leicesters).

These batteries were at this time armed with 18 pounders and were as keen and efficient as any regular batteries and were magnificently horsed.

The Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division which now and hereafter became known as the Anzac Mounted Division, was placed under command of Major-General H. G. Chauvel, who commanded the 1st Light Horse Brigade on Gallipoli, and also the 1st Australian Division, and who afterwards so successfully commanded the "Desert Mounted Corps"—the largest body of mounted troops commanded by one man in the Great War; and which was destined to break the Turkish Armies.

Headquarters of the Division was established at Serapeum and the formation of the necessary divisional units—Field Squadron, Signal Squadron, Divisional Train—was taken in page 13hand, the requisite personnel being found from Light Horse and N.Z.M.R. reinforcements.

The Divisional Headquarters was also formed from Light Horsemen and New Zealanders. Major-General H. G. Chauvel (now Sir Harry Chauvel, K.C.B., K.C.M.G.), who commanded for the first year was an Australian, and for the rest of the war the Division was commanded by a New Zealander, Major-General E. W. C. Chaytor (now Sir Edward Chaytor. K.C.M.G., K.C.V.O., C.B., A.D.C.).

The A.A. and Q.M.G. and the D.A.D.M.S. were also New Zealanders and so were several of the clerical staff.

The New Zealand Division under the Mounted Brigade's old commander, Major-General Russell, was now leaving for France, and many sad farewells were taken of old and tried friends. A feeling of being "left" took possession of all and any move was welcomed. This came in an order for the Division to concentrate at Salhia, and the Brigade marched there via Moascar on April 6th. Salhia is the place from whence Napoleon set forth upon his attempt to conquer Palestine, and where he organized the Army that reached Acre. It is the extreme eastern town of the Delta and was the "jumping-off" place for all pilgrims journeying to the East in the olden days; and from there in all probability that mighty general, Moses, led forth his people to the Promised Land.

At 4 p.m. on April 23rd, 1916, Easter Day and St. George's Day, the Brigade received an urgent message to move as soon as possible to Kantara, the Pilgrims' stopping place on the Suez Canal. It transpired that a Turkish Force under cover of a fog had attacked and driven in, with heavy casualties, the Yeomanry advanced posts in the Desert at the wells of Katia and Ogratina.